SEATTLE — For the first time, a passenger jetliner with a body and wings made of super-hardened plastics took wing Tuesday, a milestone that promises to usher in a new era in aviation.
The crowd of 12,000 workers and dignitaries lining Paine Field in Everett, Wash., held their breath as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner roared down the runway, lifted its nose into the air and then flew north as two chase planes trailed.
The plane circled over the Puget Sound for three hours, as 787 chief pilot Michael Carriker and co-pilot Randy Neville tested the 787's state-of-the-art wing and electronics systems in a series of turns, climbs and descents. The exercise was cut short as foul weather moved over the Seattle area, to the pilots' frustration.
"It felt like we flew into the future of the Boeing Co.," Carriker told reporters after the 787 landed at Seattle's Boeing Field.
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The airplane's maiden voyage, like all first flights, was the moment of truth for Boeing's executives and engineers who conceived the aircraft and then guided it through production problems that delayed it by more than two years.
"It is a milestone because it is the fruition of all the simulations, the modeling and the practical ground testing," said John Strickland, a London-based air transport consultant. "I think there's going to be a bigger sigh of relief than usual (following the first test flight). It also gives them another positive publicity moment after all the stalls."
The large use of composites employed by Chicago-based Boeing in the 787 and by France-based Airbus SAS in the Airbus A350-XWB, due to hit the market four years from now, promise to transform the experience of flying.
Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita is building the nose section of the 787.
Aviation observers compare the improvements in technology to the introduction of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, which opened up trans-continental flying to the masses in the 1970s, or the first generation of jetliners that replaced propeller-driven aircraft and shortened flights during the 1950s.
"We are confident that we have created an airplane that truly changes the game," said Scott Fancher, Boeing vice president and general manager of the 787 program.
The new planes have oversized windows that are designed to make the aircraft feel roomier. Replacing metal with stronger and more flexible composites will enable the oxygen piped through the planes to be a richer mix that's more comfortable for passengers, more humid and closer to the air at sea level.
The planes, coming as trade barriers to overseas air travel tumble, will also change how airlines operate, analysts predict.
International carriers will no longer have to concentrate long-range flying on hubs or high-traffic routes, where there's sufficient demand for flying to fill Boeing 747 jumbos seating upwards of 300 people. The midsize 787 is designed to fly as far as those jets, but while consuming about 20 percent less fuel, enabling carriers to economically link smaller cities.
"The first flight of the 787 is a real achievement and it underscores the continual advancements in commercial aircraft that come about because of healthy competition," Clay McConnell, vice president of Airbus, said in a statement saluting Boeing.
But still to be determined is whether this model, the Boeing 787-8, is the game-changer or whether that role will be fulfilled by planes still to come, like its larger cousin, the 787-9.
"We really won't know how this airplane performs in terms of the total package until it flies thousands of hours," said aviation consultant Robert Mann.
The first flight, along with United Airlines' order for 25 Boeing 787s, should give a boost to the 787's sales, which were outpaced by canceled orders in 2009. "It does giving us a nice springboard going forward," said Marlin Dailey, Boeing vice president for commercial airplane sales.
After two years of missteps and mishaps, the 787 appeared headed for another delay to its first flight Tuesday. Pilots need at least five miles of visibility to take an experimental plane like the Dreamliner into the sky for the first time, and the forecast called for rain.
But the skies cooperated. At 11:50 a.m. CST, the Dreamliner's engines started, and a few minutes later it pulled away from a parking space that placed it next to a 787 painted in the colors of launch customer All Nippon Airways.
Helicopters gathered overhead, including one loaded with IMAX camera equipment, part of a movie that will document the aircraft's birth.
The 787 rolled to the south end of the airport. Then, as pilots Carriker and Neville ran through pre-flight tests one last time, two chase planes flew over the field in tight formation and then circled back.
They provided an honor guard to the 787 as it roared into action, with one plane barely missing the 787's nose as it lifted into the air. Then the three aircraft flew into the distance.
Moments later it began to rain, a sign that the 787's string of bad luck had ended — at least for this day. "The airplane flew beautifully," Neville said. "There were no surprises."]